Updated: 03/14/2014 16:54 | By Agence France-Presse

Japan institute admits it may retract 'game-changing' cell study

A Japanese research institute said Friday it may retract a study that promised a revolutionary way to create stem cells after claims its data was faulty, dealing a huge blow to what was touted as a game-changing discovery.


Japan institute admits it may retract 'game-changing' cell study

Stem cells are primitive cells that, as they grow, become differentiated into the various specialised cells that make up the the brain, the heart, kidneys and other organs - by Mauricio Lima

The findings, published by Haruko Obokata along with other Japanese researchers and a US-based scientist in the January edition of British journal Nature, outlined a relatively simple approach in the quest to grow transplant tissue in the lab.

But it faced hard questions as the respected Riken institute, which sponsored the study, launched an inquiry last month over the credibility of data used in the explosive findings.

Institute head, Ryoji Noyori, who jointly won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2001, on Friday said the institute may quash the study, but added that its investigation was continuing.

"We are making considerations including the option of recommending that the paper be retracted," Noyori told a press briefing in Tokyo.

Minoru Yonekura, Riken's executive compliance director, added that any corrections to the study, or a full retraction, should follow an agreement between its authors and Nature.

"The publisher and the authors should work out a final solution," he told reporters.

Japanese media reports Friday had said the 30-year-old Obokata had agreed that the research should be pulled back, in what would amount to a serious professional embarrassment, and deflate hopes of a major advance in the field.

But a joint statement signed by Obokata and two other researchers, released by Riken on Friday, said the trio was "considering a possible retraction".

The study had been billed as the third great advance in stem cells -- a field that aims to reverse Alzheimer's, cancer and other crippling or lethal diseases.

"Research that surprised the world by defying the common wisdom in biological science will likely have to go back to the drawing board," the Asahi newspaper said.

Earlier this week, Teruhiko Wakayama, a Yamanashi University professor who co-authored the article, called for a retraction.

"It's hard to believe the findings anymore after so many mistakes in the data," he told broadcaster Nippon Television late Monday.

But another co-author, Charles Vacanti, a tissue engineer at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, has stuck by the results, telling the Wall Street Journal this week: "It would be very sad to have such an important paper retracted as a result of peer pressure, when indeed the data and conclusions are honest and valid."

Among the concerns is that researchers used erroneous image data -- crucial to supporting the study --  which resembled those used in Obokata's doctoral dissertation in 2011. 

Nature has said it had launched an investigation. 

Stem cells are primitive cells that, as they grow, become differentiated into the various specialised cells that make up the the brain, the heart, kidneys and other organs.

The goal is to create stem cells in the lab and nudge them to grow into these differentiated cells, thus replenishing organs damaged by disease or accident.

The researchers' groundbreaking findings said that white blood cells in newborn mice were returned to a versatile state through a relatively simple process that involved incubating them in a weakly acidic solution for 25 minutes, followed by a five-minute spin in a centrifuge and week-long immersion in a growth culture.

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